Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense he was ‘wanted’. He did not feel ‘wanted’---he felt very unwanted. He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognize that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour. He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to….That was what he wanted. So it was up to him to get those things.”
Those are not big dreams, right? I mean a guy should expect to have a slutty girlfriend, a gun (it is America after all; there are more guns than people), decent clothes, good music, a fast car, a big meal once in awhile, and be able to spin the cap off a fresh bottle of whiskey when he needs to forget how shitty his life is, even when he is walking around in his thirty dollar shoes. For Jack Levitt, who has never had anything, those dreams are so big they seem like millionaire dreams.
His parents came to violent ends at very young ages. Jack was not cute; in fact, even when he was little, he was kind of tough looking. It is hard to find adoptive parents when you look like a future felon at eight. He is in the system so long he becomes part of the system.
Jack meets a pool shark by the name of Billy Lancing, and though they only intersect for a few hours, before Jack is hauled back to juvie, that meeting will prove fateful. They don’t meet again for decades. Jack might be white, and Billy might be black, but there is no color barrier for poverty, desperation, and the feeling that there has to be more than this. ”But I don’t want to be a negro; I don’t want to be a white man; I don’t want to be a married man; I don’t want to be a businessman; I don’t want to be lonely. Life seemed to be a figure eight. It terrified him, sitting on the bus, as if time had opened black jaws and swallowed him.”
Jack has a similar epiphany about his life. He meets up with an old friend, Denny. ”Lived in half a hundred arid furnished rooms, pretended the vacuum was freedom, wakened almost daily to the fear that time was a dry wind brushing away his youth and his strength, and slept through as many nightmares as there were nights to dream. He just sat and smiled at Denny and saw what time had done to him and wondered, now comfortably, why he was so bothered by time. It happens to everybody this way, he thought, we sit here and get older and die and nothing happens.”
Anybody who has ever been to a high school reunion knows about the ravages of time. I’ve never been to one, but someone always sends me pictures from the latest reunion as enticements, I’m sure, to come to the next one. I’m getting old enough now where people have warped, melted, and expanded to such an extent that they are becoming unrecognizable. Little Tommy has become BIG Tommy, and there is barely a glimmer left of the beauty that made the prom queen the lead actress in a series of pornographic dreams.
I find myself having to agree with Jack and Billy...this is it? This is where we strive to arrive? I’ve had a much better start, middle, and hopefully, finish to my life than what Jack and Billy experienced. Regardless, life is a heartless, cold blooded witch, and no one gets through life unscathed. The scale is constantly tilting back and forth between bitter experiences and sweet experiences. I try to focus on the good memories and blur the bad memories, but the older we get, the battle scars start to show.
We become unrecognizable at high school reunions.
Billy and Jack end up incarcerated in the same prison and, in fact, the same cell. They have both failed at almost everything in life. Jack spent some time boxing but discovered he is too thin skinned and bleeds too easily, but he can take care of himself physically. Billy made it briefly into the middle class, but he felt trapped by the responsibility that proved too heavy, and all he could think about was running away from... the weight. He is smaller and gets the wrong kind of attention in prison. (Never die protecting a virgin asshole.) They forge an alliance that becomes built on more than friendship.
This book is hardboiled with a capital H. Once institutionalized, it is hard for people to ever not be institutionalized. They don’t teach you how to survive outside the system. Is it any wonder that too many orphans of the state end up being wards of the state in prison or halfway houses? They have no blueprint to achieve their dreams. They struggle, and when they fail, there is always some judge willing to put them back into the system. They understand life inside. They don’t understand the real world. After all, isn’t it just as hopeless with more responsibility on the outside? Well written, clipped, hard prose with philosophical musings that will have you nodding your head as you realize that the difference between us and Jack and Billy is the fickleness of fate.
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